Expense allowances for commissioners come with no strings attached

Few rules or records for supplements paid to county commissioners in Clayton, Cobb and DeKalb.

Ciara Bri’d Frisbie and Taylor Carpenter contributed to this report.


Commissioner expense allowances as a percentage of total compensation

Clayton

Commissioner: 11.7 percent on base salary of $22,675 and supplement of $3,000

Chairman: 3.7 percent on base salary of $129,440 and supplement of $5,000

Cobb

Commissioner: 14.5 percent on base salary of $42,583 and supplement of $7,200

Chairman: 5 percent on base salary of $131,231 and supplement of $7,200

DeKalb

Commissioner: 8.5 percent on base salary of $38,941 and supplement of $3,600

CEO: 2.5 percent on base salary of $139,459 and supplement of $3,600

How we got the story

The Georgia News Lab is a collaboration among Georgia's leading universities, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV. Over the course of the 2015 spring semester, investigative reporting students collected information about supplemental expense allowances paid to commissioners in Atlanta's five metro counties. The students then analyzed the data and interviewed officials about the expenditures. The story was written by Jane Hammond and Jared Loggins, News Lab graduates now working as AJC summer interns, with reporting from Stephen Fowler, Ciara Bri'd Frisbie and Taylor Carpenter.

Key highlights of the story

  • The rules for how county commissioners should spend supplemental expense allowances are vague, an AJC and Georgia News Lab investigation has found.
  • In some cases, commissioners requested reimbursements while also collecting a monthly expense allowance intended to cover the expenses.
  • Wage and tax statements show that commissioners generally claim the full amount of allowances as income, effectively increasing their base pay from 2.5 to 14.5 percent, depending on position.

Over the past six years, commissioners in Clayton, Cobb and DeKalb counties collectively received about $465,000 in supplemental expense allowances with little accounting of how the money was used, a Georgia News Lab and Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.

The allowances, paid directly to commissioners, range from $3,000 to $7,200 a year and are intended to cover job-related expenses. But the money comes with no strings attached, the News Lab and AJC found.

Instances in which commissioners submitted documentation to justify expenditures in some cases raise questions about use of the money, the investigation found. Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner used some of his allowance for clothing and car washes. And some commissioners sought reimbursement for expenses that appeared to be covered by their monthly supplement.

Larry Savage, a longtime watchdog citizen who led an ethics complaint against the Cobb County Board of Commission last year, said the public deserves greater transparency about the allowances. Without it, he said, “commissioners are able to escape public scrutiny.”

“It’s not a matter of right or wrong,” Savage said. “It’s a matter of what we can see or cannot see.”

The issue of misuse of public money in expense reimbursements exploded in 2014 when the AJC and Channel 2 Action News reported on how some DeKalb commissioners were abusing their county-issued purchasing cards. DeKalb suspended P-card use this month after former attorney general Mike Bowers audited P-card purchases and found numerous examples of DeKalb employees using the cards for questionable expenses such as dance lessons, flowers and meals.

Following the P-card scandal in DeKalb, the News Lab and the AJC examined how commissioners in Cobb, Clayton and DeKalb use so-called expense supplements, which are paid on top of a commissioner’s monthly salary. Commissioners in Fulton and Gwinnett do not receive supplements and instead seek reimbursements for approved job-related expenses, such as travel.

While each of the counties scrutinized by the News Lab and the AJC require commissioners to submit receipts when requesting reimbursements, none require them to account for how they spend their supplements — even though the Internal Revenue Service provides a financial incentive for them to do so.

The IRS treats business expense allowances as income subject to taxation unless the taxpayer can substantiate the expenses with receipts.

Without documentation, the full amount of the allowance is reported to the IRS as income. IRS wage and tax statements examined by the News Lab and the AJC show that nearly all commissioners report the full amount of their allowance as income.

In Cobb, where the annual stipend is $7,200 per year, that translates to a 14.5 percent supplement to the annual salary of a district commissioner. In Clayton it represents about an 11.7 percent pay boost, and in DeKalb it’s 8.5 percent.

‘By the grace of God’

Rules governing the allowances and expenses vary by county, from fairly explicit to virtually non-existent.

  • In DeKalb, a provision in the county's charter simply says that commissioners receive $300 per month as an "expense allowance." The charter does not specify what the allowances are for or how they are supposed to be spent, and that language is the only guideline given. Budget director Jay Vinicki said commissioners simply receive them "by the grace of God."
  • In Clayton, the county charter dictates that commissioners receive a $250 monthly stipend — $3,000 per year — on top of their regular salaries, called an "expense allowance" in the legislation. The commission chair's supplement is $5,000 a year. There is no written stipulation for how the money is to be spent.
  • Cobb County commissioners get nearly $600 per month in the form of what county officials call a "travel allowance." There is no written provision for how the money should be spent. County officials were unable to cite the ordinance or statute explaining the origins of the allowances or rules governing their use.

In Cobb, finance chairman Jim Pehrson said the travel supplements are understood to cover commissioners’ travel within the county. Commissioners can, and do, collect additional travel reimbursements for travel outside the county.

Nonetheless, the News Lab and the AJC found instances of reimbursements being paid for travel inside the county.

In 2011, commission Chairman Tim Lee drove to events and meetings for what county officials said was “routine” county business at a total cost to taxpayers of $483. Reimbursed expenses included travel to Marietta Daily Journal headquarters and to a water authority meeting, both just a few miles from Board of Commission offices.

Lee did not respond to requests for comment.

DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon has received more than $10,000 in travel reimbursements since 2009, a period in which she also collected more than $18,000 in expense supplements. Reimbursed expenses include $1,556 for a conference in 2011 and $429 for transportation and meals during a three-day conference in April 2013.

Gannon said she uses the allowance for routine, in-county expenses.

“When I drive around half of the county on the weekends and go to meetings, … no one reimburses me for my mileage, nor the wear and tear on my car,” Gannon said. “If I have to go to a lunch meeting, I pay for that myself. So this is an allowance, if you will, that we are supposed to be using to pay for things of that nature. It doesn’t even begin to cover what I spend personally.”

Gannon said she bills separate reimbursement for travel outside the county, including costs for lodging, transportation, baggage fees and a $36 per diem for meals and other expenses, because to expect the allowance to cover those costs “would just be unconscionable.”

Gannon’s fellow commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton received just under $3,000 in reimbursements between 2009 and 2014, a period in which she also received $18,000 in allowances. Other than a $2,306.86 reimbursement for a conference in Nashville in 2011, Sutton’s other reimbursements — totalling nearly $700 — were for travel in 2013.

Receipts show Clayton Chairman Turner, who was first elected in 2013, spent more than $3,500 of his allowances on expenses such as food, travel, parking and baggage fees. He also used it to pay for car washes, dry cleaning and clothing.

Between 2013 and 2014, Turner spent $712.99 at D&K Suit City and K&G Men’s Superstore in Morrow for clothing.

Turner said he is entitled to make these purchases.

“I am full-time chairman, and usually employees get a clothing allowance,” he said. “So I use my stipend to try to make sure that I have the proper attire to make sure I carry out my duty.”

Clayton County officials did not respond to questions about whether such expense items are considered legitimate. They did say they are working on clarifying the rules.

“At this time, Clayton County Finance Department is in the process of developing written documentation which will explain the processes for reporting the expense allowance, make the commissioner aware of his responsibilities, and allow the commissioner to choose how the allowance is reported,” Patricia White, records retention specialist for the department, wrote in an email.

'They can't do it for free'

Despite their practice of not submitting receipts against their supplement, Clayton commissioners this year sought to double the annual supplement to $6,000.

The effort was part of a proposal to increase their base pay from $22,675.22 to $31,178.43 a year, or from 16 percent of what Superior Court judges make to 22 percent.

Combined with the request for a doubling of the supplement, the compensation hike would have amounted to a 45 percent increase over their current pay and supplement.

Clayton CFO Ramona Bivins said commissioners had many out-of-pocket expenses associated with their jobs, and said she assumed they needed more money because the current supplement amount was not enough.

“I know that the commissioners … have various things throughout the year, different things for their constituents, whether it’s job fairs or whatever,” Bivins said. “Those things cost them money to provide food or whatever.”

“They can’t do it for free,” she added.

Members of the Clayton legislative delegation, led by chairman state Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex, included the commission’s request for a pay raise in HB 645 in the final days of this year’s legislative session.

The bill never made it out of committee.